About a year or ago, I crossed an alley in South Beach and noticed a cracked pink CD on the pavement. It looked familiar, but it couldn't be — could it? I picked it up, and it was what I presumed: a copy of Modest Mouse's Good News for People Who Love Bad News. What were the odds that an album I knew so well would be the one forsaken and abandoned? As I inspected the unplayable disc of data storage, I knew I was holding a metaphor in my hands. And recently, when I heard of a Black Keys and Modest Mouse tour that will be coming to BB&T Center Tuesday, November 5, I began thinking again about what exactly that ravaged CD symbolized.
It's hard to believe, but we're almost into the '20s. With a new decade, we should prepare for a new wave of nostalgia. Just as this decade has been all about revering the 1990s, we'll soon be celebrating the 2000s. We're already somehow talking about what a civil president George W. Bush was, a new wave of Avatar movies is emerging, and anticipating a bunch of package tours featuring acts that came of age in the '00s — such as the Black Keys and Modest Mouse.
The celebration of the musical era when people began relabeling "alternative" as "indie" was ushered in with the publication of Meet Me in the Bathroom in 2017. But that book is an oral history of New York-centric bands (think the Strokes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and LCD Soundsystem). Modest Mouse and the Black Keys shared bills with those acts but missed the geographical cut. That doesn't make them any less worthy as survivors of the last era when rock 'n' roll seemed to matter (at least until the next one rolls around).
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Modest Mouse started in the '90s in the Pacific Northwest as a lo-fi trio. Whereas fellow Washingtonian Kurt Cobain found inspiration in the Pixies' loud-quiet-loud ethos, Modest Mouse singer/guitarist Isaac Brock took from the Pixies the lyrical notion of mixing the mundane with the eerie, and the sonic notion that every song could use a well-placed holler. Through the turn of the millennium, Modest Mouse was incredibly prolific, cranking out three LPs of at least 15 songs with nary a clunker among them. After 2000's The Moon & Antarctica, the band seemed snugly ensconced as the best act nobody had heard of.
Meanwhile, around the time when Modest Mouse was approaching its apex, Dan Auerbach (on guitar) and Patrick Carney (on drums) were about to discover whether a two-man band was big enough to fill a room. Based in Akron, Ohio, the Black Keys seemed to be the mirror image of another Midwestern blues-influenced duo with a similar name that was starting to break out: the White Stripes. But without the flair, backstory, or sex appeal of Jack and Meg White, the Black Keys, like Modest Mouse, seemed destined for the fate of critical darling.
Around 2003, both bands did something that would have been unthinkable for an underground act ten years earlier: They "sold out."
They licensed their songs to appear in countless advertisements and TV shows. Though it was jarring for longtime fans to hear Modest Mouse's "Gravity Rides Everything" deployed to sell Nissan minivans, it exposed the group to a new audience. When Good News for People Who Love Bad News came out in 2004, the pump was primed to sell 2 million copies. Three years later, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank debuted as the nation's number one album. You gotta think having their songs covered by Kidz Bop had something to do with that.
The Black Keys were even more pervasive. By 2012, they tallied more than 300 song placements in TV spots, videogames, and movies. They capitalized on the idea that the products their songs were selling were at the same time selling their songs. The result: four Top 5 albums and the distinction of having become one of the scant few bands formed in the 21st Century that could headline an arena tour.
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Such ubiquity means songs by the Black Keys and Modest Mouse are destined to be cinematic shorthand for the '00s. Just as "California Dreaming" appeared in every movie set in the '60s. "I'll Be Your Man" will find its way into the inevitable Barack Obama biopic, and "Ocean Breathes Salty" will blare in a romantic comedy set in 2005 at the point when the skinny-jeans-wearing hipster protagonist creates a MySpace account.
So, was that broken Modest Mouse CD on the street in South Beach the result of a band that overreached beyond its natural audience? Did hearing "Float On" over and over on the radio lead someone to purchase a Modest Mouse album and, a decade and a half later, cease to value its timeless tunes? Or was it a more pedestrian sign of the changing times, an example of a once-cutting-edge technology grown obsolete? Or does a shattered CD of a brilliant album represent the fact that music is no longer tangible — that it now streams ethereally, in and out of our consciousness?
I prefer to imagine someone playing the CD so many times it started skipping, prompting them to chuck it out the car window.